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Will Ronaldo be able to rediscover his purpose as a super substitute?

Athletes are the most self-actualizing species on the planet. Grit and tenacity get them to the top of Maslow’s pyramid, but it’s a heightened sense of purpose that keeps them there.

An unshakable conviction that this is what they mean in life. It is not so much a career as a calling. That’s why walking away can be so hard.

Retirement is like death for athletes and Cristiano Ronaldo, 37, has been slowly dying in that sense for the past few years.

The round of 16 game against Switzerland, where he started on the bench, felt like the last nail in the coffin.

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Barring injury and suspension, it was only the third time in his Portugal career that Ronaldo has not been part of the starting XI for a competitive match. Only once before has he made a shorter appearance for Portugal and that was in a Euro 2004 group match against Russia, where he played just 12 minutes.

Of the 16 league games he made for Manchester United this season before he left, he started only four.

Switzerland was no exception. She went through again in the quarterfinals against Morocco.

It wasn’t the fact that he started every Portugal group game before Switzerland that made his bench so seismic. He felt that way because it was the national team, the only place where his place, his stature and his importance have never been under threat.

Ronaldo on the bench: a sight we may have to get used to [Patricia de Melo Moriera/AFP]

“Apart from the fact that he’s the captain, he’s helped take Portuguese football to a different level and he’s the biggest star in terms of media glitz they’ve ever had to deal with,” European football expert Andy Brassell told Al .jazeera.

Ahead of the World Cup, many felt that the noise around Ronaldo and his relationship with Manchester United could have a destabilizing effect on Portugal’s campaign.

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But Brassell said they are used to dealing with frenzy, pointing to Euro 2008 when Ronaldo was pushing for a move to Real Madrid and World Cup 2014 when there were big concerns about his fitness.

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He added that Ronaldo’s omission from the starting XI can be attributed to their performances on the pitch: “disappointing performances” in Portugal’s opener against Ghana and how they looked better against Uruguay when Bruno Fernandes was pulling the strings.

“The interesting thing was that what happened against South Korea [substitution]… that led to Fernando Santos [coach] public rebuke that I don’t think has happened before. Santos had never scolded Ronaldo in public before and that felt like a big step,” Brassell said.

Santos is a man who stepped onto Ronaldo’s touchline in the Euro 2016 final. After going off injured in the 25th minute, Ronaldo spent most of the second half standing next to Santos, shouting instructions to the players. .

Ronaldo became Portugal’s de facto coach at the EURO 2016 final [Franck Fife/AFP]

Ronaldo’s actions in recent months — refusing to come on as a substitute against Tottenham, claiming and celebrating a goal against Uruguay that wasn’t his, airing his grievances in a revealing interview — have been partly blamed on his ego.

But it is more than that. It stems from Ronaldo’s inability to accept the fact that he is no longer the player he once was.

It is one thing not to be willing to pass the baton, and another to protect it with such ferocity.

Ronaldo’s presentation against Switzerland was greeted with deafening cheers in the stands.

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He had a smile on his face as he looked around the stadium, perhaps accepting the fact that this has become a reality: a 16-minute cameo from the bench in a World Cup knockout match when his team was 5-1. up. .

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Ronaldo is still the star of the show but the setting has changed. Like soccer. The job of a center forward today is not just to put the ball into the back of the net. They are now the first line of defense and an important cog in team building.

“Obviously he’s very fit, but I’m not sure he’s 100 per cent fit for football. I don’t think I can go around the field and make Portugal as formidable as they were against Switzerland,” Brassell said.

The tactical evolution of football may have left him behind, but it has also left the back door open. The five substitution rule has effectively made it a 16v16 game. The hyper-specificity of the roles means that coaches have now begun to pick players with specific phases of the game in mind.

It’s not the role he envisioned for himself, but Ronaldo could be the ultimate understudy.

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A big complaint from Ronaldo is how he demands the ball from his teammates and forces them to build around him. That’s what makes him the ideal out-ball in the last 15 minutes. He can stretch tired defenses with his smart movement and is a constant presence for them in the box.

Ronaldo is an enforcer, a player whose game is defined by disruption and power. He rarely influences the pace of the game, but he is the one who slows it down. Since 2020, he has averaged a goal contribution every 100 minutes for Portugal. It was 120 minutes for Manchester United last season. The numbers don’t justify a start, but they would be an effective substitution.

Ronaldo would do well to turn his attention to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede’s career was deemed over when he tore his ACL at age 35 and he moved to the LA Galaxy in 2018.

Two years later, he returned to AC Milan and became the spiritual leader of a young team in the process of rebuilding. His minutes were regulated to maximize his usefulness and not hinder the development of the next players.

He started less than half the games in the Serie A-winning season, but Ibrahimovic’s contributions were considerable: 17 goals in all competitions.

Once the shock of being knocked out of back-to-back World Cup matches wears off, and being knocked out by Morocco, Ronaldo would do well to recognize that there is an opportunity for him to polish up a legacy that has been battered in the last two. . of years.

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Ronaldo said his World Cup dream ended after the clash against Morocco.

It could be the end of Ronaldo. But, it doesn’t have to be.

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